Thursday, 20 January 2011

Book fairs and festivals

By Peter Stuart Smith

As a follow-up to my previous comments about public appearances, let me offer a very personal experience of two contrasting events, one of which I'll name, and the other I won't, for reasons that will quickly become obvious.

Last March I was invited to be a guest at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair. The idea was that I would sit on a panel – the usual talking head scenario – and we would discuss bestsellers. The panel was moderated by an American publishing professional, I was there as the harassed author, and the other two people were the owner of a chain of bookshops and the manager of a publishing company, both located in the UAE. After the panel discussion, and there'd be a book signing session for me, and apart from that my time was my own. They agreed to fly me out to Abu Dhabi business class, accommodate me in a five-star hotel for a week, provide me with transport, throw in a half-day ride on a dhow – essentially a floating restaurant with mountains of food – and invite me to the party at the end of the Fair. And they paid me as well.

The arrangements were flawless, the event extremely well attended by thousands of people, and we even had a decent audience for the panel discussion, which was conducted simultaneously in both English and Arabic, the translations provided by a couple of young girls in a booth and transmitted to the participants by radio mike. The whole thing was thoroughly enjoyable, and I'd do it again tomorrow.

At the other end of the scale was a very minor literary festival which could best be described as shambolic. The writing was on the wall, I suppose, when they gave me the wrong postcode for the location of the event, which meant that I was stuck on one side of the river looking across it at my destination, and with no bridges for about 5 miles in either direction. Then the hall in which authors were supposed to speak turned out to be a draughty barn, with poor lighting and no audio system.

I normally illustrate my talks with a PowerPoint presentation, and on the morning when I was due to deliver my lecture, I found that not only had the system in the 'hall' never actually been tested, but one of the essential components of it was still in the boot of a car belonging to one of the organisers, who had just vanished on an errand that would take most of the day. Pictures and other images are actually quite difficult to see when displayed on the 15" screen of a laptop instead of a 10 foot projection screen, but the eight people who turned up (it wasn't entirely surprising to learn that the organisers hadn't properly advertised the festival) were able to sit close enough to see them.

I assumed that the festival was being run by people who had never done anything of the sort before, but I was mistaken. They'd actually run several, all apparently organised with the same level of attention to detail, but had consistently failed to learn anything at all from their experiences. They were really nice people, very welcoming, very hospitable, and almost completely incompetent.

I suppose the rather odd thing is that I enjoyed both events enormously, despite the sense of frustration I felt at the British festival, because ultimately all events of this kind seem to attract enthusiastic audiences. For a writer, meeting the people who have actually read your books is always a delightful, and sometimes a surprising, experience, and this, I think, is one of the real joys of being an author.


  1. Great experiences, Peter. I worked with the Arabs in Saudi Arabia and have a good idea of how your event was organised. I liked the front cover of your novel because I have been associated with the Harrier for many years. My first posting in the RAF was to RAF West Raynham in Norfolk where the Harriers had been trialed as the Kestrel. Subsequent to that I worked in Germany where three Harrier Squadrons were based, and had many freinds who maintained them. Later, one of my sons became a Harrier pilot and completed 23 years in the RAF, finishing as a test pilot at RAF Boscombe Down. When I retired in 1995, my son was given permission to fly me in the two seater. We flew over Norfolk, then across to Wales where we did some valley flying (terrific stuff), bombed a dam and avoided enemy flak with a massive pull up over the mountains. On arrival back at RAF Wittering he 'bowed' to his mum who was watching, her heart in her mouth, and so ended one of the happiest days of my life. Great stuff. My boy is now a Captain on EasyJet. How boring!

  2. Boring, but probably safer! I was in the Fleet Air Arm for 21 years, and worked closely with Harriers throughout what passed for my career. Now, of course, it's a somewhat sobering thought to realize that if Argentina decided to snatch back the Falkland Islands, there wouldn't be a hell of a lot we could do about it, with no fixed wing capable aircraft carriers left.